Month: May 2013

What We Can Learn from Borderlands 2 (Part 1)

Usually I hate things that are followed by the number ‘2’.

Borderlands2boxart3I have to start by saying that I bought and played Borderlands 2 on the day it was released and only just finished it two weeks ago with the help of a few overly leveled friends of mine. I had come into it with all the fresh faced optimism of someone who had loved the original despite the flaws. Sure enough I put about 10 hours into the sequel and couldn’t help but gush hyperbole about how amazing it is as the ‘sophomore album’. As the followup to one of my most loved shooters, it was seemingly hitting all the right buttons. That was around 6 months ago. At a certain point the game began to swallow up my expectations and my enjoyment into a shallow mess of trudging stubbornly forward through huge maps filled with enemies that could kill me too quickly and checkpoints that were entirely too spaced out.

Looking back it’s not the fault of the game really. This isn’t me shifting blame away from a game that I had highly praised all of the last year, but a serious reflection of how I play games and how Borderlands 2 SHOULD be played.

The game itself is very noisy. You’re pummeled with information from the moment you load. A list of friends who are playing is shown to the right side of the screen complete with what character, level, and quest they are currently on. Your character (him or herself) is shown carrying whatever gear you’ve equipped on them. It’s a very visually pleasing version of every MMO log in screen you’ve ever seen. That theme continues throughout the rest of the menus as well. Menu’s pop up in a way that never really takes you out of the action and everything makes sense in the world of the game. You want to change your guns? Open up a holographic inventory interface and choose which gun to zap into your hands from the Future Space Backpack that’s currently holding them. Even your shield is broken in an extremely noticeable and visually immersive way. They’ve got the details on lockdown.

The game is noisy, but in the same way that an expertly produced pop song is noisy.

Given all that information they’re blasting at you, it makes sense that the decision was made to start the game a little slowly. The first couple hours involve you following an annoying robot through a frozen wasteland while the game dutifully teaches you how to play. I don’t enjoy such obvious tutorial driven gameplay, and it’s no different in this case. Luckily for me (and everyone else) that game picks up significantly when you get past all that and into the first boss battle. From that point the game does its best to keep you from being able to take any sort of stock. There are moments where you’re dumped back into the the central hub of this games word (unironically titled Sanctuary). Even then, however, you’re running around doing everything but take a moment to reflect on possible happenings around you because of the slot machines, or side quests, or gun shops.

The frenetic pace eventually broke me.

I started up the game playing zer0, the ninja like character whose main two ways to kill people are through stealth and sniping. The defining ability of zer0 is to throw out a decoy of himself while he becomes invisible, allowing him to sneak around behind a distracted enemy and despatch him in one of the two ways you see fit. His skills all revolve around shooting single target, high damage weapons and are utterly useless for the type of game Borderlands 2 turned out to be. Don’t get me wrong, he fits in great on any team, but as a solo character he’s simply too slow and plodding to make progress through some of the games more arduous stretches.

Imagine trying to tighten a single screw while tied to a supersonic missile.

Everything about the game screams at you to do things at a certain, breakneck pace, while zer0’s character is built around the traditional idea of taking each engagement at a steady and measured pace. That’s how I approached the game and that’s where the game failed for me. The failing can’t be blamed entirely on the game. I had projected onto zer0 how I thought the character should be played and proceeded to stubbornly drag that archaic design through this modern destruction derby without thought of how I could change the character to adapt. Instead of choosing a different path I had decided that the designers had been mistaken in pushing zer0 into the game.

One of the things we can learn from Broderlands 2 is that sometimes our own prejudices make great games feel worse than they are. In no measure is Borderlands 2 a boring or particularly difficult game, but because I had decided to play in exactly the wrong way my experience was tainted. Should designers change the game in order to allow people like me to enjoy a slow and plodding playthrough? Absolutely not. Was I wrong for playing the game in that specific way? Absolutely not. Sometimes though, the vector of gameplay and gameplayer can meet a such an odd angle that there is simply no reconciliation. People should be cognizant of their prejudices while critiquing games or even while simply trying to enjoy games.

That’s only the first thing I took away from Broderlands 2. In the second part of this write up, I’ll talk about the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ and why it’s not just a naval gazing buzzword.

Pixel Dungeon, a rogue like game

Prepare for DOOOOOM!

Rogue like games are so named because they follow the format of Rogue.  Admittedly, I’ve never played rogue, but I imagine it was pretty frustrating, of course, in the 1980s all games where frustrating.

Pixel Dungeon is a rogue like phone game.  As we all know, Justin feels like phone games are casual games…and casual games are the devil.  I would like to strap him down and make him play Pixel Dungeon until he broke.  This would take no longer than four hours.

This is seriously the hardest rogue like game I’ve ever played.

Here we have a floor covered in traps.

There are a mere three classes to play: Rogue, Warrior, and Mage.  They each have their own advantages and disadvantages, at least, that’s the official stance.  I believe they each have different ways to bone you, tear your hopes down, and leave you saying:

“Argggh! I hate this game!”

…Only to press “New Game” a few minutes later.

While this is an incredibly frustrating game, it’s also addictive.  Just one more game is said often, even if that one more game will end on the second or third floor of the dungeon.  Killed by a rat.  Killed by a gnoll.  Killed by hunger (Starving to death!).  Killed by a poison trap…or a fire trap.  Or my personal favorite: Killed by a poison trap while running from a crab and starving to death.

There’s a variety of potions and scrolls to “help” you, provided you identify them first.  Something that can end badly if you drink a flame potion…or read a scroll of challenge (thereby letting all the monsters know where you are…hope you healed first!). Beware: These are a mere two of the ways this game will screw you over.

The first boss is on level 5, if anyone gets pass him let me know in the comments.  So I can hate you properly.

It’s free in the google play store (not sure about Iphone), so check it out if you enjoy rogue likes and feel like your life is lacking in sources of hate.  Now, I’ve finished my disjointed post and would like to get in a couple games of Pixel Dungeon…I’d still like to be killed by something on the sixth floor.

Protip: Holding down the wait button lets you sleep and heal (provided you’re not starving), and will automatically stop if a monster enters the room.

Certain Age Gaming Podcast for May 19th, 2013

We talked a lot about Kickstarter and my finishing of Borderlands 2. James beat me up with his words.

All Podcasts from this point on will be going up as Soundcloud files AND in RSS form (eventually), look for us on iTunes in the next few months as well.

Certain Age Gaming for May 19th, 2013

CA Gaming final

The XBOX One Does Stuff Besides Gaming, And That’s Okay

Some areas of the internet are awash in incredulity and even explicit outrage at the reveal of Microsoft’s new console, the XBOX One.

That controller looks good next to my Betamax.

That controller looks good next to my Betamax.

Notice I didn’t call it a ‘gaming console’, that’s because for all intents and purposes that would be limiting the scope of what Microsoft hopes to achieve with it’s new device. The clean and simplistic aesthetics of the Box itself are meant to fit right into the other devices surrounding modern day TVs. It’s a rather tangential allusion to what they plan on doing with the new XBOX; be the center of your TV entertainment world. Every piece of media going through your television will be controlled by the XBOX One. At least, that’s the plan.

In case you didn’t hear about it yet, here’s a list of the things talked about at the event yesterday:

Voice Control of XBOX One
Skype chat
TV Integration
Snapview (The sort of Customization of windows you see in Windows 8, honestly a killer feature.)
ESPN
Forza 5
Remedies new project ‘Quantum Break
Spielberg involved in Halo TV
NFL Deal or something
Call of Duty: Ghosts (Now with more Dog)

If you notice, out of the hour taken to debut the new system, Microsoft only talked specifically about 3 games. Quantum Break was the only one we didn’t know about already, and it has some kind of TV integration (probably similar to Defiance). A lot of these features they spoke about don’t appeal to me. They probably don’t appeal to you either. That’s okay though, because that’s not who this conference was for.

We already know the thing will play Video Games.

The question for “gamers” becomes then, “Will those Video Games be good enough to justify the purchase of this weird device?” Unfortunately we won’t have that answer until E3. Albert Penello (Who’s title at Microsoft is ridiculously long) said recently in an interview with Jeff Gerstmann:

Hey, let’s have a briefing that sort of goes and talks about our aspirations and I hope [mumbles]. Everybody was super consciences of saying that like that is not what this one [conference] was. This is about talking the overall vision, announce the name, what we’re trying to do, give some context about hardware. That will free us up for E3 to just like, nail it on games.

The event wasn’t about selling us on games, that’s the easy part of the new generation. The hard part is selling people on innovations and the inherent limitations they will bring.  Those limitations seem to include not being able to lend and share of Video Games with friends and a requirement to be online at least once every 24 hours for the damn thing to even work.

Mainstream news and their consumers don’t give a shit about these inherent limitations because they’ve been made used to them by the devices they know. Microsoft just has to convince it’s core audience that the games will outshine the potential negatives. But hey, at least they won’t be wasting time talking about Skype integration or their NFL deal at E3 this year. Thanks Don Mattrick.

It’s going to be a long 19 days before E3.

Square-Enix Death Throes Now in Chart Form

Square-Enix has released their numbers for the fiscal year 2012 and as predicted it does not look good. Game sales were above last year, but skyrocketing development fueled by ludicrous sales projections caused an overall net loss for the company. Instead of properly assessing the blame and working to fix the issue, it seems they’re refocusing the herculean efforts to destroy the once beloved company by shifting the majority of development to Smart Phones and Tablets.

SQE Chart2

The business environment surrounding the [Square Enix] Group is in the midst of major changes, where smart devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs are spreading rapidly while the console game markets in North America and Europe are increasingly competitive and oligopolistic. In light of such environmental changes, the Group is focusing all efforts on a substantial earnings improvement through driving reforms of business structure in order to establish new revenue base.

In other words, console development and release has proven too ephemeral an opponent to grasp firmly, so they’re moving on to an even more fickle user base. The company’s smartphone efforts have proven vastly more profitable than recent console releases, to be sure. That is because they were actually profitable. At last check their big releases under the Eidos brand (Hitman, Tomb Raider, and Sleeping Dogs) have all failed to turn a profit. Even mainstays like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are having a hard time selling at the glorious levels seen in the past.

All of this comes on the heels of GungHo posting an operating income of more than 3.75 million a day based almost entirely on a blazingly popular smartphone game called ‘Puzzle and Dragon’. Before the release of the game, which is most basically described as Bejeweled meets Pokemon, Gung Ho was best known as the guys who hosted the servers for Ragnarok Online. That all changed in January of this year when they used the profits from Puzzle and Dragon to buy Grasshopper Games (The developer by games like Lollipop Chainsaw and No More Heroes). Their success doesn’t seem to be slowing down either, so it’s no wonder that Square-Enix looks to their business model for a roadmap to success.

The problem with relying on the smartphone market is the notoriously fickle consumers. Games like Puzzle and Dragons and Angry Birds are the textbook case of lightning in a bottle. Of course, mobile games are often times more profitable than a single console counterpart, but that’s just considering a one to one comparison. It’s much easier to make millions off of a popular console game than it is to make millions off of a smartphone title. As the chart below shows, this doesn’t seem to concern them very much.

SQE Chart1

Doc Brown Explains Squeenix’s New Strategy

To achieve profits of the future, Square is looking toward Efficiencies of the past. A goal that would be impossible given the new generation of console systems if Square was not shifting focus toward a smartphone heavy based portfolio. This is likely to shrink gross profits, but they’re betting that it will increase net profits. All of this remains to be seen of course. Smartphone adoption rates are only going to go up, but the gaming section of the smartphone market is only going to get smaller relative to how big it is today. The gamble is ultimately in their best interest though, as console and core gamers have considered Square a mobile gaming company for some time now.

Tiberian Sun: A Retrospective

After remembering that every Command & Conquer game up to and Tiberian Sun was freeware now I decided to re-download a game from my youth and see how it stands up today.  Short answer: Yes.  Long answer incoming.

Oh god, this game.

So back when I was a wee 10 year old, this game was released.  Now I had already gotten some experience under my belt playing the original C&C, what with the harvesting of the mysterious glowing green substance called Tiberium(which while being incredibly valuable is slowly destroying the world) and I had figured that since I enjoyed the first game so much the sequel had to be good.   It did not disappoint.  With over the top good old fashioned FMV sequences with such actors as the infamous James Earl Jones this game does to the original what the original did to the RTS genre.   Hailed as one of the greatest games in the C&C lineup Tiberian Sun has a level of strategy I still feel stands on its own in a world with games like Starcraft 2 and Anno 2070.  The main story line continues the ongoing war between the Brotherhood of Nod and the Global Defense Initiative.  With Kane returning from the original as the charismatic leader of the Brotherhood continuing hes messianic goals.  Now I would like to say here that in the struggle between GDI and Nod I have always found the characters of Nod more interesting and more relate-able than the GDI’s generic General # 48 played by big name actors.  Don’t get me wrong I enjoy the struggle of of GDI, what with trying to keep Nod from experimenting on the hapless civilians that learn that their back yard just become an active warzone, and at the same time trying to contain the spread of Tiberium, but it always just felt so……….boring.

Zzzzzzzz….

Alternatively though,  the Nod faction always had some ulterior motive or separate plan or action aside from what is actually happening.  Kane is and always will be playing the long game instead of just looking at what is in front of him and take it at face value.  It is this character and this story that originally drew me into the series and has drawn me back in again.  I have already put about 7-8 hours into this game again and  I have been loving every single minute of it.  Honestly if you enjoy playing RTS games, go download this game right now.  Seriously, go play it.

Thank me later

PEACE THROUGH POWER

Penny Arcade, Amanda Palmer, and the Problem With Kickstarter

KickstarterLogo

Since it’s founding in April 2009 Kickstarter has raised 511 million ‘successful’ dollars toward 40,975 projects that met their funding goal. A smashing success that’s become a battle cry against tradition funding models, especially in the world of billion dollar Video Games. Before ‘crowdfund’ became a verb, there were two ways to get money for your game. You could either privately fund it by selling copies personally after you’ve created the game or you could be the benefactor of a publisher who would help fund the development and distribution of the game. (Or, in the case of Epic, create a graphics engine and hawk that) The world of professionally published games had become somewhat of a dangerous minefield by 2009, one littered with the decaying corpses of once promising and beloved development studios that had been kicked kicked to the curb by their overbearing and demanding bosses…

(That metaphor became a little mixed, just imagine a minefield that for some reason has a curb. Maybe there’s a road to this minefield?)

Developers felt trapped. For larger teams with expensive projects there was very little recourse. If you self-published, you risked everything for the fickle tastes of the consumer. If you professionally published, you risked being taken over and used to develop a Spider-Man game before being taken to a strangely accessible minefield. In March 2012 all of that changed when Double Fine raised over a million dollars to make an Adventure game.

Since then (and a little bit before then) Video Game projects have raised over 112 million dollars on Kickstarter. More than any other project category. A feat made even more unbelievable when you realize that there have been about 1600 successful game projects… that’s 4% of the total projects funded.

Kickstarter Table Kickstarter2

If any of you reading this listen to our podcast, you’ll know that we’ve heaped shovel after shovel of praise onto the idea of crowdfunding. It’s a way for developers to get around publishers and fund a game directly through the consumers! Without Kickstarter, we’d never have seen a sequel to Wasteland, or an independently developed Obsidian RPG, or a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment. This probably isn’t want the creators of the site had in mind, but it has become their most lucrative source of income. Gamers, it seems, are extremely generous when it comes to throwing money into a giant pit with the possibility for zero return. They bought Mass Effect 3 after all. (ZING! Take THAT Bioware)

It doesn’t stop just with Video Games though. Other people around the industry have taken advantage of the generosity of gamers. Idle Thumbs, a popular podcast, closed out a project with over 120k dollars (well above their goal) only 10 days after Double Fine. Super Drake Tracker was successfully funded based on a Pax East prank gone horribly too far.

Then there’s the Penny Arcade projects.

The first one (flippantly called ‘Penny Arcade Sells Out’) involved using Kickstarter to hold a $250,000 dollar ransom for the Ads on their site. Give them what they were asking for, and they would benevolently remove (some of) the Ads. Not exactly a… project. It was more like an experiment, to see if they could crowdfund their website. One of the stretch goals for this… ‘project’ was to revive the DLC Podcast at an astonishingly ridiculous goal of $850k. They fell well short and only raised $500k. Poor guys.

Without the 850,000 dollars needed to revive the podcast, there was no hope for fans of DLC right?

WRONG!

WRONG!

Yesterday Penny Arcade launched the second of their projects. This time it was for a revival of the DLC Podcast that so many knew and loved. Obviously since the original goal from the first project pegged the revival costs at $850k, this new project would be at least in the same ballpark right?

I don't ask a question unless the answer is 'No' apparently.

I don’t ask a question unless the answer is ‘No’ apparently.

That’s, um… very generous of them. Like one of those Steam sales, they decided to allow us the opportunity to fund this at the one time only price of $10. That’s 99.999% savings! Here’s what they say about the low funding figure.

We basically wanted it to be pay what you want.  People have been telling us to make this stuff for years, it was never about the goal.   We thought might as well set it at a level where even one backer would get us there. That way, no matter what, we’re committed to creating and delivering a radical new era in podcasting (it will probably be very similar to the previous era).

They’ve set the goal so low that it would only take ONE PERSON to kick their butts into gear and make this Podcast a reality. Also, they get to keep whatever they raise. Whether it’s $500 or $100,000. The $10 asking price guarantees that this Kickstarter won’t fail and they will get every penny that the fans want to give them (Minus 8-10% taken off the top by Kickstarter). As you can see in the above image, they have currently raised ~55k dollars toward that goal. This raises an important question.

What are they going to do with the additional 54,990 dollars?

Amanda Palmer

You see, in May of 2012 Amanda Palmer raised over 1 million dollars toward the production of a new CD and tour. Her goal was a modest $100,000 and she clearly overachieved. Armed with a clear plan and a very transparent list of uses for the funds, Palmer was blasted across multiple media sources for her excessive waste. Gawker contributor Cord Jefferson explains:

Besides the art books she plans on printing at $300 a copy, Palmer estimated that about 7,000 CDs and thank you cards would cost her $105,000 to manufacture and ship, while 1,500 vinyl records and cards would cost her $30,000. I called Standard Vinyl, an Ottawa-based record and CD brokering company, to gauge Palmer’s prices. Co-owner Chris Saracino told me that even for top-of-the-line products, Palmer’s estimates seemed “pretty high.” “Just to give you a bit of an idea,” Saracino said, “if you ordered 7,000 CDs from us, which would come in a normal jewel case and with a 32-page booklet of liner notes, you’re looking at under $9,000.”

Transparency, in this case, turned out to backfire. Not that Palmer cared, she went on a very successful tour afterwards (which had it’s own controversies). The backlash was aimed specifically on the accountability of the artist and project manager to use funds appropriately for the project that was funded. Other projects have faced similar scrutiny with over funds but, strangely, Penny Arcade has been free of much media backlash. They’ve so far funded over 500,000% of their original asking price and have yet to face a strong challenge asking what they’re going to do with the extra money.

They’ve set expectations so low for scruples that people accept they’re using Kickstarter as a storefront.

I don’t begrudge PA for their efforts. It’s a grand experiment and only really involves their fans and their product. What I begrudge is using this source of crowdfunding as free space on the shelf of what’s quickly becoming simply a store instead of a hippie commune style investment house. Kickstarter should be used for projects that have goals, something tangible that we would not be able to experience otherwise. The Idle Thumbs project had clear goals and a plan for the extra money collected, this Penny Arcade project is about testing the waters to see what their fans are willing to pay for. To me, it’s a gross misuse of an ideal we’ve only recently come to enjoy and because of projects like this will soon become something else entirely.

We as a community need to challenge people asking for our money, if you go beyond the funding goal, what are you going to do with the extra funds? Stretch goals are a great start, but they don’t explain what’s actually happening with the money. If the extra $50k dollars are going to be used to by Tycho sandwiches for the next year, then TELL US. Be transparent, so that if you’re being a dick with our cash we can subsequently complain about it. Don’t enigmatically ask for a $10 dollar tip and then steal away with the mountains of money you make, offering little to no explanation for your expenses. We cannot let projects simply skate by on the assumption of need, or there will be many more rich and famous people in the future who use Kickstarter as a store front.

That is, unless they stop them.

But that’s the problem with Kickstarter isn’t it? They’re making money on our low expectations.